After weeks of intense fighting, including the last several days under a cease-fire plan that appeared to have no bearing in the eastern Ukrainian city of Debaltseve, the Ukraine Army on Wednesday ordered a full retreat of its forces as rebels opposed to the Kiev government sounded victory and raised a flag over the strategically important town.
"Today, the armed forces of Ukraine are conducting the organized, planned retreat of units of forces of the antiterrorist operation from the city of Debaltseve," announced Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for the Ukrainian national security and defense council, in Kiev on Wednesday. "At the moment, almost 80 percent of the Ukrainian units have retreated from this sector, and this operation is to be completed soon."
Debaltseve, which acts as a key transportation hub between the rebel centers of power in Donetsk and Luhansk, was the final holdout for the cease-fire that was scheduled to begin across the country at midnight on Saturday. It was clear that rebels would not allow the city to be held by Ukraine forces and the fighting had continued over recent days despite the agreement brokered by France, Germany and Russia during an intense diplomatic summit last week in Minsk, Belarus.
On Tuesday, Russian President Putin said Ukraine soldiers in Debaltseve should raise their white flags and, as Reuters reports, "urged Kiev's pro-Western leaders to let their soldiers surrender to avoid more bloodshed."
Ukraine leaders appeared to be down-playing the defeat, with key officials, including President Petro Poroshenko, claiming the withdrawal was both planned and orderly. "Debaltseve was under our control, it was never encircled. Our troops and formations have left in an organized and planned manner," said Poroshenko in televised comments on Wednesday.
Reporting from the ground, however, painted quite a different picture of the troop withdrawal, including harrowing stories of Ukraine soldiers fleeing on foot to avoid the fire of rebel fighters. According to the Guardian's Alec Luhn reporting from the city of Artemivsk, where Ukraine soldiers were seeking refuge from the fighting:
Dozens of vehicles – tanks, armoured fighting vehicles, troop transport trucks, ambulances and vans – were streaming down the highway leading from Debaltseve to the main Ukrainian lines near Artemivsk on Wednesday.
“Debaltseve is no longer ours,” said a fighter named Ilya, who said he had just come from there.
Kiev’s forces appeared to be laying down suppressing fire towards the town to help their comrades retreat. Outside Artemivsk, outgoing artillery was heard and a multiple rocket launcher seen firing off a volley towards Debaltseve.
The Ukrainian forces were taking heavy casualties escaping the city, which has been virtually surrounded by rebel forces for at least a week.
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Makeshift ambulances were delivering wounded men to the hospital. The medical chief for the region, said at least 90 wounded had been taken out.
And according to the Associated Press:
AP reporters saw several dozen Ukrainian troops retreating with their weapons Wednesday morning from the town in eastern Ukraine, covered in dirt and looking exhausted. Some were driving to the nearby town of Artemivsk in trucks while several others, unshaven and visibly upset, were on foot.
One soldier spoke of heavy government losses, while another said they had not been able to get food or water because of the intense rebel shelling. A third spoke of hunkering down in bunkers for hours, unable to even go to the toilet because of the shelling. They smoked cigarettes in the frigid winter air and gratefully accepted plastic cups of tea given to them by locals.
"We're very happy to be here," the hungry soldier told the AP. "We were praying all the time and already said goodbye to our lives a hundred times."
Russian Channel One showed the rebels hoisting their flag over a high-rise building in Debaltseve.
Despite the disregard for the cease-fire in Debaltseve reports have indicated that the cessation of fighting was being honored elsewhere along the frontlines. On Tuesday, comments by Ertugrul Apakan, the chief monitor of the Ukraine conflict assigned by the Organization for Security and Co‑operation in Europe (OSCE), which has been appointed to oversee the implementation of the Minsk agreement, said he was gravely concerned about the fighting in Debaltseve, but also indicated hope that once a commitment was made there, a more comprehensive peace could be fulfilled.
Apakan said that he and his team intend to return to the city on Wednesday to determine if the warring sides may now be able to "confirm to each other their intention to honour the ceasefire agreement."
"Failure to do so will have grave consequences," he said.